Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Body of Eldest Son of U.S. President John Quincy Adams Washed Ashore in Pelham in 1829

George Washington Adams was the eldest son of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, and Louisa Catherine Adams.  He also, of course, was a grandson of John Adams, first Vice President and second President of the United States.  He was born in Berlin, Prussia on April 12, 1801 while his father was serving as a U.S. diplomat there.  According to a brief biography of George Washington Adams: 

“In 1809 John Quincy was appointed minister plenipotentiary to Russia.  Despite Louisa’s objections, John Quincy and his parents decided that George and his younger brother John 2d would remain at home to be educated.  Only the youngest son, Charles Francis, would accompany his parents to Russia.  The separation lasted for nearly six years, during which time Louisa gave birth to a daughter, Louisa Catherine, who died in infancy.  George and John 2d boarded with their great-aunt and uncle, Mary Smith and Richard Cranch, in Quincy.  With the death of both Mary and Richard in 1811, the two boys went to live with the Peabodys, and a year later they entered Derby Academy in Hingham, Massachusetts, residing with the school’s preceptor, Daniel Kimball.  John Quincy was appointed minister plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James in 1815, and in May of that year George and John 2d were reunited with their parents and Charles Francis in London.  The family resided in Ealing where the boys attended David Nicholas’ school, George as a day student.  With John Quincy’s appointment as secretary of state in 1817, the family returned to the U.S.  In August George enrolled at Harvard, and although he was disciplined for taking part in a student rebellion, he received his degree in August 1821.  He then studied law with his father, and in October 1823 he entered his third year of legal education in Daniel Webster’s Boston law office.  The following October, after being admitted to the Suffolk County Bar, George began to practice law in Boston.” 

Source:  “Third Generation – George Washington Adams” in Adams Biographical Sketches by the Massachusetts Historical Society (visited Oct. 12, 2016). 

George Washington Adams had a reputation as a womanizer and a heavy drinker.  Although he began practicing law in Massachusetts, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1826, serving one year.  In 1828 he served briefly on the Boston City Council. According to one account, “Adams had a troubled life. . . . He was said to be predisposed to gloom and paranoia, a combination that would probably be classified as depressive illness.”  

On April 30, 1829, George Washington Adams was traveling on board the steamship Benjamin Franklin in Long Island Sound on his way from Boston to Washington, D.C. when he appears to have committed suicide in the middle of the night.  According to one account: “He was last seen at about 2 A.M., and his hat and cloak were found on deck, leading to the conclusion that he had intentionally jumped.  His body washed ashore on June 10.  Adams had left notes hinting that he intended to kill himself, and earlier on the ship he had seemed delusional, asking the captain to return to shore, and declaring that the other passengers were conspiring against him.  The consensus in news accounts of the time and among historians subsequently is that he committed suicide by drowning after he jumped from the Benjamin Franklin.” 

Source: “George Washington Adams” in Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia (visited Oct. 2, 2016).  

A Hell Gate pilot named Ferris living on City Island in the Town of Pelham found the body of George Washington Adams after it washed ashore, virtually on the pilot’s doorstep, on Wednesday, June 10, 1829.  One newspaper reported:

“We learn from Mr. Ferris, one of the Hurl [sic] Gate pilots, that the body of Mr. G. W. Adams, son of the late President Adams, was found on Wednesday afternoon on City island directly in front of his door. 

Ex-President Adams, with his family, was to leave Washington last week for Massachusetts, there to take up his permanent residence.” 

Source: [Untitled], The Geneva Gazette and General Advertiser, Jun. 17, 1829, p. 3, col. 3. See also [Untitled], The Evening Post [NY, NY], Jun. 11, 1829, p. 2, col. 3 (“We learn from Mr. Ferris, one of the Hurl Gate Pilots, that the body of Mr. G. W. Adams, son of the late President Adams, was found yesterday afternoon on City Island, directly in front of his door”; Note: access via this link requires paid subscription). 

Although George Washington Adams never married, he is believed to have had a mistress named Eliza Dolph who, some claim, gave birth to a child only a few months before George Washington Adams committed suicide.  Eliza Dolph was a chambermaid to Dr. Welch, the family doctor of the Adams family in Boston.  Shortly before Adams committed suicide, Eliza became ill.  Although she recovered from the illness, by July 1829 her baby, possibly a child of George Washington Adams, had died.

George Washington Adams in Portrait Painted Ca. 1820.
Painting by Charles Bird King On Exhibit in Brooks' Adams'
Bedroom of the Old House (National Park Service).
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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